Northeast Ohio Artists Reflect On Pandemic Lessons

Kristen Cliffel takes a selfie while modeling one of her home-made masks
Kristen Cliffel wears one of the masks she made to restore her sanity during the pandemic [Kristen Cliffel]
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The pandemic has been a time of denial and restriction. But, COVID-19 has also prompted reflections on how we’ve taken parts of our lives for granted.

Kristin Cliffel "Home Sweet Home" (2007) [Kristen Cliffel]

Kristen Cliffel has a reputation for creating delicious-looking pastries, colorful birds and cozy little houses – out of clay. As a sculptor, she plunges her hands into this material and shapes ceramic commentaries on domestic life. This physicality transfers to her personal relationships

“I'm a squeezer. I'm a hugger,” she said. “I touch people a lot. Or I used to.”

Cliffel said she took for granted hugging a friend she’d meet while walking her dog or squeezing someone’s hand at a gallery opening.

“I've made a ton of work this year,” she said. “But, it seems like a lot of it is to what end? I think a lot of us artists are questioning, without an audience, is it like, a tree fell in the woods, you know?”

Kristen Cliffel said "Shelter In Place" (December 2020) was "almost frightening to make." [Kristen Cliffel]

To keep her sanity, Cliffel said she’s been making masks for friends as well as baking real food and dropping it off in a socially distant way. Still, the loss of that tactile experience has been particularly profound.

“You know, that kind of physical feedback that can't be communicated over digits, over text, over FaceTime,” she said. “And, you know, the presence of absence for me is so large, it's so looming.”

Dale Goode questioning art funding priorities at a 2017 board meeting of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture [ideastream]

But having to learn how to connect in these ways has proven pivotal for multimedia artist Dale Goode.

“It caused me to use websites, email quite a bit, using the phone quite a bit,” he said. “And also, what do they call it? A lot of Zoom meetings with the galleries. I tried to maximize my time as much as possible.”

And now the local art world is finally paying more attention to him. The 73-year-old African American artist has churned out paintings, photos and found-object sculptures for the better part of four decades, filling-up local storage lockers with his work. In recent years, his exasperation over a lack of recognition often boiled over at public meetings on the funding of artists.

But the tide has really turned over the past few months. Goode currently has exhibitions at Hedge Gallery and SPACES. But, perhaps his most gratifying accomplishment was to have selections from his extensive body of work chosen for preservation by the Artist Archives of the Western Reserve.

“You're looking at 20 years of work that has never been seen,” he said.

Dale Goode "Love Gone Astray" (2002)

Goode said the threat of COVID to his own life gave a focus to his work, and taught him not to take his long career for granted.

Painter Darius Steward is half as old as Goode, but he said the pandemic has also put a sharp focus on his young career. His takeaway?

“Don't depend on anything,” he said. “Especially for me, it was gallery, gallery, gallery, like, I was making strides to come up with something different, you know? And I had some other things in the works.”

But then, some of those galleries started shutting down and he had to create Plan B and C, which included a teaching post at Laurel School in Shaker Heights.

“I came to realize that you’ve got to have more skin in the game,” he said. “You can't put your eggs in one basket. If you do, you're pretty much done for.”

Canton Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Michelle Charles thinks she took for granted the very existence of the organization that she temporarily closed last March.

Michelle Charles and her husband, J.C., sporting Canton Symphony Orchestra masks. [Michelle Charles]

“We were so naive at that time,” she said. “You know, we thought, 'Oh, this will be over in six weeks or a month, we'll be fine.' And then pretty soon we canceled through the end of April, and then we canceled through the end of May. And then I said, 'This is it, we're done. We can't go on.' It's sobering to think back that it's been over a year since we all came together.”

There are tentative plans for some outdoor performances this summer, with a fall season opener planned for October.

Author and writing teacher Thrity Umrigar said the pandemic has humbled her.

“I have actually spent this past year really, really, really trying hard not to complain,” she said. “I am not an essential worker. I am not somebody who has worked for minimum wage in a grocery store and has had to deal with people coming in without wearing masks. I mean, I'm an academic and we switched to Zoom when all this first hit. So, I have been about as privileged and protected as they come.”

Umrigar said she’s learned a thing or two about being an academic and other ways it can be a position of privilege.

“And so things that I used to really fret about and worry about, such as, somebody asking for an extension on a deadline and me cracking the whip and saying, ‘No, no, no, that's not how it works in the real world,’” she said. “You know, I have just eased up on a lot of those things. And now when I am faced with a choice, I just err on the side of kindness.”

Writer and teacher Thrity Umrigar has learned to "err on the side of kindness." [Thrity Umrigar]

Umrigar wonders if some of the restrictions of the pandemic haven’t somehow been a blessing. She has always loved spending time with friends, going out to restaurants, and she looks forward to resuming some of that. But, as the vaccines start to roll out, she’s starting to feel a little trepidation.

“There's a part of me that feels that because of climate change, because of sort of having a heavy footprint on this planet, this has been a wonderful dress rehearsal for how to live a simpler life, if that makes sense,” she said. “And I hope to God that we don't lose sight of that.”

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